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COD rules on 1.00 students

By Karen Kaplan

After six months of hearings, the Committee on Discipline has finished reviewing 76 cases of academic dishonesty, the largest instance of student cheating in recent MIT history.

The cases involved students enrolled in Computers and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00) last spring. The students in question were accused of turning in problem sets with identical code, contrary to the professor's requirement that although collaboration with other students was permitted, coding had to be done individually.

Two last cases will go before the COD today.

According to COD Chair Sheila E. Widnall '60, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, "a few" students were suspended from MIT, and "no more than five" of the cases were dismissed.

Most of the 78 students received one of a variety of punishments, including informal probation, internal probation with a letter to the student's faculty advisor and formal external probation with a notation on the student's transcript. None of the students were expelled, the most serious punishment possible.

The suspicion of cheating in 1.00 first arose mid-semester last spring when a student in the course complained that many his classmates were writing joint code in violation of the professor's policy, thereby putting students who did problem sets individually at a competitive disadvantage.

In response, a faculty member developed a program to check for duplicate code, including identical statements, functions, the number of functions used, program content and individual statements within each function. One hundred of the 250 students enrolled were found to have duplicate code.

After meeting individually with each of the students, the faculty member submitted 78 names to the COD.

Professor of Civil Engineering Nigel H. M. Wilson SM '70, who taught 1.00 last spring, said

"the action taken was very reasonable."

He noted that changes were made to the course in order to prevent a similar problem from arising in the future. "The main change made [to 1.00] is that the rules on what is considered cheating, which I spelled out verbally, are now made explicit in writing," he said.

Wilson also said that problem sets were now routinely monitored with a program that checks for duplicate code, and that no incidences of cheating were reported during the fall term.

Surprising observations made

about student opinion

In a report to the faculty issued by Widnall, the committee found several "themes" during the proceedings concerning student perceptions of the Institute and its policies.

The committee expressed its surprise and disappointment in learning that "many MIT students see the Institute as an obstacle course set up by the faculty."

Committee members also found that some students thought the faculty expected them to cheat on assignments, and that the students thought the major problem was in getting caught.

The COD found that the prevailing student culture was to work together on all types of assignments, including coding. Even though students knew of the prohibition against joint coding, "this awareness did not deter their behavior because many regarded the policy as being counter to the dominant student culture," Widnall wrote in the report.

Many students told the COD that they would never again collaborate with other students in order to avoid future problems. This attitude worried the COD, which said collaboration is an integral part of the learning process.

The COD also concluded that students failed to take into account the degree to which their professional careers could be affected by misconduct during college.

Students put their futures at risk because notices of formal probation appear on transcripts, which are sent to graduate schools and places of employment. Law and medical schools pay particularly close attention to records of disciplinary action.

Finally, the COD expressed its concern that in classes where widespread cheating occurred, assignments would become too difficult. For example, Wilson was impressed by the level of work students were turning in and the high grades they received, and thus felt no need to reduce the level of difficulty.

The committee was concerned that such a situation could lead to harder and harder assignments, making the impulse to cheat more and more attractive.

For example, the COD discovered that students felt the assigned work was much too difficult to do "by straightforward means, and that any means that makes survival possible" was therefore allowable.

"We have been told by some students that they feel that developing survival skills, many of which would be considered academic misconduct by the faculty, is necessary in the MIT environment and by implication that some feel that the faculty expects them to do this," the report continued.